A Case of Conscience by James Blish
1959 Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel
The early Hugo-winning novels are – with the possible exception of They’d Rather Be Right – widely accepted as classics of the science fiction genre. In most, cases each book challenged readers in new ways, painting with words futures not yet visualized while reframing the basic questions surrounding the human experience. For an excellent example of this phenomenon, it would be hard to top James Blish’s extraordinary tale of the consequences of knowledge uncoupled from wisdom, A Case of Conscience.
Lithia is a world both Earth-like and strange, a near Eden of marshes and rivers inhabited by intelligent and sophisticated reptiles who build their cities out of ceramics, and are entirely lacking in the concepts of good and evil. The concept of sin baffles them. This deeply troubles the mind of one member of the first contact team sent to assess this inhabited world, a Jesuit priest, who upon discovering that the Lithians lack even the concept of original sin, is forced by his personal frame of reference to conclude that Lithia is a trap set by the Devil. The questions raised in his mind, and later expressed by him, have serious consequences for this man of the cloth, as do the questions and conclusions of his colleagues during the expedition. Each man is, like the Jesuit, trapped in a particular – and yet understandable – frame of reference and they draw their conclusions accordingly. All of them have the knowledge they need, but proceed from false assumptions and misunderstand completely what they experience on Lithia, among the peaceful Lithians. One does so to such a degree that he attempts to deceive the others into seeing the Lithians as something they are not, and cannot be, in an attempt to make his decision the one that carries the vote. For they have a momentous decision to make regarding whether or not to open Lithia and its swamp-loving, dinosaur-like inhabitants to the people of Earth. The decision ultimately reached has truly fateful consequences.
Before the investigators depart Lithia, Father Ramon is given as a gift a small porcelain jar that contains a friendly Lithian’s son. Lithians literally experience ontogeny as a recapitulation of phylogeny, and the tadpole-like creature in the jar will pass through all the evolutionary stages of the Lithians before becoming an intelligent dinosaur twice the height of a grown man. The purpose of the gift is to have a Lithian grow up among Humans, understand them, and then come home to share that knowledge. It’s a good idea, but the Lithian father, like his Human friends, is also proceeding from unavoidable false assumptions, the consequences of which are both profound and tragic.
The bulk of the novel – and I use bulk loosely, since this is a slim volume indeed – takes place on a future Earth that is a bizarre if logical extension of the Cold War paranoia just gripping the West as Blish wrote his book. The bulk of humanity lives underground in vast, complicated “shelters,” with the original cities slowly falling into decay. This shelter culture is based on the sound knowledge of the consequences of potential nuclear war. But it was a war that never came, and now Humanity is trapped by the consequences of that knowledge. In this world the young Lithian grows up as a literal stranger in a strange land, surrounded by humans who, though they were born to that world, could really be described in the same way.
This is not a long work, and yet this small book packs a punch that is often entirely lacking in more lengthy epics. (Curiously, all the earliest Hugo winning novels share this trait of being complex stories packed into a relatively small number of pages.) There is nothing about this book that misses the mark. All of the characters are developed quickly and well, the plausibility of the story flows from the world-building, and the questions asked are never so obviously answered that the book develops a “preachy” quality. In a very real sense, the reader is left to decide how the story ends, even though at first glance the ending might seem painfully obvious.
The word “compelling,” used to describe a novel, is about as over-used as “bestseller,” these days, and yet that word truly applies to A Case of Conscience. This is a book I could not easily set aside once I started reading it, an experience that I’ve had with it twice now, without it wearing in the least bit thin. Highly recommended, of course, with this caveat: when you think you know where the story is going, what it’s saying, pause a moment and consider where your own frame of reference might be leading you.
This was actually posted by a fellow blogger K.L. Toth on the first of June, but I’d just put up a Hugo review and wanted to let that post run its course. Waited longer than I intended. Life happens, and when it happens fast enough, one thing crowds out another.
But here it is, at last!
Written in the Stars
I was quite pleased with this!
Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone series has always been a favorite of mine. The stories presented, and their manner of presentation, has always left me in awe. This is real storytelling, all the more amazing for being a television show! One of the outstanding characteristics of the show was the way stories of respectable depth and character development often unfolded in a very small setting, with some of the best never straying beyond a single room. “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” is an especially good example of this, and perhaps for this reason came to mind frequently as I read Fritz Leiber’s novel The Big Time.
This entire novel, with its dozen characters, takes place in a place called, well, The Place. It’s a facility, maintained by near magical technology, in the Void outside normal space and time. In it, soldiers of the Change War are given a chance to recover from the various traumas suffered in the course of their missions. The so-called Spiders and Snakes are locked in a titanic battle for the control of time itself, though none of the soldiers, or the “entertainers” of The Place, really have any idea of why. The Big Time is something of a locked room mystery, in which a dozen characters recruited from many periods in history (two are nonhuman) find themselves questioning everything they think they know about the Change War, as a potentially explosive situation develops. The device that maintains The Place, and would allow them to resolve their predicament, has vanished. No one seems to know how or why, and one or more of the denizens of The Place is playing his or her comrades false. More than one may have a motive to place them all in grave danger. In the course of unraveling the mystery, the arguments of the characters examine such matters as love and loyalty, the nature of time and history, and the price of blind obedience.
This is a short, dense, complicated novel, and an example of storytelling that relies almost entirely on character development to tell its tale. It’s who and what these people are that creates the story, not the physical action or the exotic setting. The setting is described with as light a touch as possible, leaving much to the reader’s imagination, while leaving out nothing vital. This includes the ultimate resolution of the crisis, an answer that was right there in front of them, and the reader, all the while.
I first read this book while in high school, and derived very little from it. The author’s name caught my eye on the library shelf because I’d just read Leiber’s “Ship of Shadows,” in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. (A first for me, the copy was found in a local newsstand and purchased with a bit of change I had from running errands or some such. It was the summer before I started high school. “Ship of Shadows” is literally all I remember about it.) This is “grown up” sci-fi, however, and my frame of reference, such as it was back then, didn’t quite extend to the contents and nature of the story. Nothing exploded and there were no brain-sucking aliens, so it left only the vaguest of impressions. Reading it now from a more mature perspective (yes, mature, and let’s just leave it at that), I might as well have read it for the first time. This makes me very glad I took on this project of reading and discussing Hugo winners, as otherwise I’d have missed a very interesting experience.
Although written in the late ‘50s, of the first four Hugo Award novel winners, this one seems the least dated. The nature of the technology used in this vision of time travel is so fanciful that it touches nothing in the real world, then or now. The characters are taken from times past (relative to 1958) or from invented pasts or futures so distant, that they are either living period pieces, or – again – so fanciful as to touch nothing in the real world. The Big Time seems a novel that has, itself, drifted loose from its own place in the time stream, much like the characters it contains.
This is a first-person narrative, told by a female character who tends to stand on the edge of the situation, dodging the action (such as it is) and the arguments, playing witness to it all and hardly participating until the end. Her recounting of the events involving the other characters includes numerous asides and observations on the nature of The Place and the Change War, building in the reader’s mind a good understanding of why this all matters in the first place. The interplay of the characters she describes, and her inside knowledge of several of them, brings the tale to life.
While I enjoyed reading The Big Time, and can understand why it won the award in 1958, there are times when the tendency of certain characters to hold forth at length drags a bit. In each case the motive behind the oratory is an attempt to bring others around to the speaker’s point of view. By its nature, then, this is not a story that moves by changing scenes for the sake of whatever action takes place. These people are in The Place for the duration. Everything must happen in that room; everything must be said in that room. It works, the way those old Twilight Zone episodes worked, but it calls for some patience on the part of the reader. If you stick with it and let the characters have their say, a strange and fascinating tale will emerge.